On the eve of Aram Bartholl’s Brooklyn exhibiton at Devotion Gallery for his work FPS [First Person Shooter], Michelle and Augustin from Untapped connected with Aram to talk about Dead Drops and his other projects. It seemed logical to meet over Skype, given the nature of Aram’s projects.
Augustin: When we first heard about the Dead Drops project, we thought it was a lifetime project because of its scalable potential, but when we took a closer look, we realized it was a logical progression to what you did before. Indeed, all your last projects are about connecting Internet to the real world. How did the idea of the Dead Drop come about?
Aram: You captured it! It’s this basic idea of connecting online and offline, and discussing these two different worlds. It’s also the idea that in our super-connected world today, it’s become an adventure again to go back outside. With Dead Drops, you have to think: “Ok I need to go out in the street and I need to be physically at this place, connect my whole computer to this little plug in the wall and I won’t know [in advance] what’s on there.” It’s almost a reference to how people communicated in the past–I mean the classic dead drops idea come from spies! I guess they don’t use it anymore, they do it digitally.
Michelle: Did you expect such success with Dead Drops?
Aram: Totally not! It started in New York at the end of October when I released it on my blog, and it became huge. I went back to Berlin and had a lot of interview requests in New York City, and now that I’m back New York City, it’s become very big in Europe! Coincidentally the project came out at the same time as the Wikileaks affair, so there’s some kind of connection conceptually regarding who’s in charge of the internet, or who controls it. At the same time, the Dead Drops project is titled as a peer-to-peer file sharing network, and it has its limitations. It’s more about the gesture of connecting a $2000 laptop to a wall, and not even knowing if you’re going to get a virus or not!
Augustin: Is the issue of potential viruses part of the project?
Aram: It’s interesting”¦on one hand people compared it to unprotected sex, and on the other hand they are like “Dead Drops are dangerous because everybody could put a virus on it, and everybody can have access to it”. Sure, it’s possible and you need to be careful with what you do with your computer but you need to be careful with your computer wherever you are, especially on the internet! The viruses are on the internet, not in the walls!
Augustin: You’re right, it’s probably not the “spirit” of the Dead Drop project to put viruses on the USB keys…
Aram: Well you could and I’m sure it will happen, but I think it’s interesting to look at how people think. They think it’s dangerous just because it’s out in the street and everybody has access to it. Whereas, they think they’re safe when they stay at home because it’s warm, comfortable, they have their coffee and are connected to the Internet. They think nobody can harm them because they are in a safe place! But Dead Drops has more to do about how online life and offline life expectations are different in our minds.
Augustin: We feel like this project belongs to the public because everybody can install a Dead Drop. Was this “gift” to the public intentional? Do you ever feel like that project is escaping from you?
Aram: A lot of my projects are projects that offer tutorials to do-it-yourself. I often run workshops, then have tutorials on the project page. I think that’s also part of the open source idea–putting ideas out on the web and letting a project grow itself. It was truly intentional to make it a participatory project. In the very first post on my blog I made this tutorial: “How to make your own dead drop in your city” and this caught on fire immediately. Sometimes you create a project, you post a tutorial, and maybe one or two guys make it. But this time, it was a huge success and it’s great to see how it grew. Of course sometimes you feel “Oh, will people remember who the founder was?” But I’m kind of cool with it–most people figure it out. And the remixing and extension of the idea is also the beauty of open source: in France they had a public art show on Dead Drops and there were bands promoting their music on the Dead Drops.
Michelle: I think that’s the part of the project I like the most… it’s that it can be anybody’s project.
Aram: You also get the feeling that people care about the Dead Drops they install. By doing something yourself, you identify through it and you become part of it. That’s very important. I also like the database and the pictures that are coming out of it…you get pictures of cities, of locations in the world you’ve never been before. In La Réunion Islands there are 2 dead drops now. There are other drops in parking lots in the midwest of the US… You start to think about how people live their offline life.
Michelle: There’s one now in South Africa too! I’m going to Istanbul in a few weeks, so hopefully I can be the first one!
Aram: Yes sure, go for it!
Michelle: Are there different format to the dead drop? Not all of them are like your tutorial is that correct?
Aram: Yes, I wrote this manifesto where I pretend to be strict about it, but in fact I’m not. I think people just get that’s it’s not about connecting it back to the Internet and listing exactly what’s on there, it’s all about the secrecy of it. The press always ask me “What’s on there?” and I’m like “I don’t know, you need to go and see yourself!” Some guy wrote me an email telling me “The project would be even stronger if everything was offline. A data drop out of the location tells you where the next dead drops are around it.” But there’s always been offline file sharing projects, like file sharing parties where you meet in a place with your hard drives. When you work in the same office, you share music–everybody has done that before. But I’m interested in the gesture of plugging in your device to the city, or plugging it to a house, to a wall… and also the injection of data literally into buildings, into physical stones. It’s a very literal way of getting things out of the web and spreading it out in the city. It’s just the fact that this little USB sticks in the wall–that makes this project different.
Augustin: Is there a reason you started it in New York City, or it’s just that you happened to be there?
Aram: I happened to be here for the semester for a residency at Eyebeam, and there were several projects I wanted to do. I ended up doing this one. It’s always a good reason to do a project in New York because it’s a very good catalyst. It’s very classic New York.
Michelle: You said earlier that you wondered what was on the Dead Drops around the world…Well we can tell you what’s the one we went to in Paris. We expected to find a lot of electro or rock music…. and 90% of the music on the dead drop was classical music! We also found a 10 page document called “How to become a hacker.” So what’s next for you?
Aram:I’m going to keep building up the dead drop website. I totally plan to keep this open and to keep it a free project.
How to Make Your Own Dead Drop: